“I don’t have a podcast!”
There is no measure by which one could read Sacred Lies, Raelle Tucker’s Facebook Watch anthology mystery series, as a comedy. And yet Juliette Lewis—who stars in the series’ fratricidal second season as Harper, a cold case obsessive whose missing persons poster-strewn apartment looks like conspiracy theorist’s mood board—is so good, she manages to make a punchline out of her increasingly frustrated reading of this line each time it recurs.
“It’s an armchair detective website,” David Paetku’s jerk-bro cop tells his more open-minded partner (Adrian Holmes) when Harper shows up at the station asking, on behalf of the Jane Doe Archive—a fictionalized version of The Doe Network—to get a look at the specific (also fictional) cold case file at the heart of the new season. “She’s one of those podcast people.”
Harper: “I don’t have a podcast.”
“A blind pig finds a trough every once in awhile!” jerk-bro cop scoffs after Harper breaks open a major new lead early in the second episode. “Guess we’re the dumbass cops in your podcast?”
Harper: “I don’t have a podcast.”
“What the hell’s wrong with you, Podcast?” Jerk-bro cop exclaims after Harper attacks him, a few episodes later, for doubling down on the idea that murdered girls left to rot alone for decades in the Colorado wilderness have no one to blame but themselves.
Later Harper, in the process of being arrested for obstructing an ongoing investigation and impersonating a cop, but NOT for having a podcast: stares daggers in I don’t have a podcast-ese.
As (relatively) fun as this ongoing gag is, it serves a greater narrative purpose, working as efficient, if subtle, shorthand to remind viewers not just what Sacred Lies: The Singing Bones is—a YA-skewing mystery series inspired both by the Brothers Grimm (“The Singing Bone,” “Cinderella”) and by a composite of real missing persons/murder cases (most notably, the Allentown Four)—but also what it manifestly isn’t—a thinly veiled allegory for confronting one’s personal demons by publicly investigating other people’s pain. AKA, a podcast. AKA, a story about telling stories. Getting so far as to tell the story, as Harper tells foster kid Elsie (Jordan Alexander) in the trailer, isn’t the point. The point, heartbreakingly, is that before anyone can even get to these Jane Does’ stories, they have to have a name. “Everybody deserves to have a name,” Harper declares. “They deserve to matter to somebody.”
A simple manifesto, sure, but it’s one that works in The Singing Bones’ favor, as its simplicity allows for Raelle Tucker and the rest of her team to take on a panoply of real world injustices that could easily overwhelm a season. It’s one that’s already saddled with incorporating not only Harper’s true crime-inspired story, but also two separate timelines, the mystery of Elsie’s missing parents, and multiple fairy tales, all within Facebook Watch’s monstrously (Ed. Note: or gloriously) tight half-hour format. Like, logically it seems impossible that such a limited set-up could still make space for The Singing Bones to also highlight the traumatizing chaos of the American foster system, the systemic failures of low-income housing requirements, the deleterious consequences of the ongoing child separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, the deadly toxicity of the patriarchy, the inherited trauma of domestic violence, the deadening effect of swimming in the worst of humanity on a daily basis (both professionally and as a crime-obsessed amateur), the genocide of American Indians, animal cruelty, and the scary breachability of genetic privacy that’s resulted from the rise of commercial DNA testing. And yet, by starting with such a simple premise—Everyone deserves to have a name; everyone deserves to matter—and using richly textured but visually lean photography, Tucker and her team manage to pull it off.
Of course, a major part of this team is the excellent cast, whose lead trio is capably rounded out by True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten (playing Peter, Elsie’s deadbeat dad). The series’ roster of support includes Paetku and Holmes as the Colorado cops officially investigating Harper’s Jane Doe cold cases, Kimiko Glenn as a depressed forensics tech who puts her neck out to help Harper do some good in the world, Kristin Bauer von Straten as Elsie’s “Evil Stepmother” foster mother whose sunny attitude towards outsiders belies her prison-strict domestic regimen and casual anti-immigrant nationalism within, Odiseas Georgiadis as a fellow foster kid who the system ultimately fails, and Avery Konrad as Harper’s runaway older sister. This supporting cast also includes Emily Alyn Lind and Siobhan Williams as a hippie take on the doomed sisters from “The Twa Sisters”, the Scandinavian version of “The Singing Bone” fairy tale—their initially sunny presence quickly (and effectively) twisting into a blooming sense of dread as their role in Harper’s, Elsie’s, and Peter’s lives grows more and more clear.
A less obvious part of Tucker’s team, though one just as integral to the Facebook Watch project’s surprise success, is the show’s deeply passionate Secret Keepers fanbase, who not only helped spur Facebook Watch’s decision to renew the anthology series for a second installment, but who Raelle Tucker also tapped to weigh in on key details of The Singing Bones’ story development. Now, this might seem like an odd element to call out in a review, as in general, the passion of a fanbase—whether it be for a teen series or a more mainstream one—shouldn’t impact an audience’s (or critic’s) impression of how an artistic vision is executed. But we live in a time where fan passion can bring canceled shows back from the dead (Lucifer, Timeless, One Day at a Time), send beloved protagonists from canceled series to active ones (hello, John Constantine), and re-shape an entire character’s look (Sonic) even after production has wrapped. Fan passion can have real impact on a project’s final look, and in the case of The Singing Bones, the Sacred Lies Secret Keepers kept up with all the nitty gritty details that go into making a television show throughout the second season’s production, casting votes on everything from character names to setting to the color of a plot-significant prom dress. In some cases, the context to details that fans voted on seems to have changed between the vote and the final product, but in others, these votes resulted in choices that seem pre-ordained—like the fact that Elsie’s dad, Peter, also goes by Hunter, which is just about as perfect a name he could have with regards to the structure of the Grimms’ version of “The Singing Bone.” Colorado, similarly—save for the fact pointed out by many fans that it has hardly any contemporary wild boar population to speak of, let alone a historical problem with the animal—is a terrific stand-in for the lush Scandinavian/Bavarian wilds of the fairy tales the season is leaning on.
More important, though, Sacred Lies fans have proven, both to Tucker and to the Facebook Watch programming powers that be, that the sense of justified moral outrage at real failures in modern American society that pervaded Sacred Lies in its first season is a kind of story that teens want to watch. Not because it gets cute about the power of stories, or because it weaves fairy tales into reality, but because it takes the dignity of even the least cared for life seriously.
And here’s where the show comes back to the simplicity of Harper’s motivations in pursuing justice for her two Jane Does: Lewis’ Harper, like Kevin Carroll’s Dr. Wilson in the series’ cult-focused first season, absolutely is haunted by personal demons. And just as absolutely, she is using the mystery surrounding a traumatized teen girl to exorcise them. But despite the dismissive assumptions of people like Paetku’s jerk-bro cop in The Singing Bones, neither Harper nor Wilson get involved for public adulation, or to “dig around in [official] files, play hero, prove [cops are] a bunch of morons who don’t know how to do our jobs.” They’re getting involved because of their internal drive to seek justice for the people society is all too happy to throw away—an internal drive felt deeply by teen audiences, as a rule—won’t let them not.
In other words, Harper does not have a podcast.
The first episode of Sacred Lies: The Singing Bones (as well as the entirety of Season 1) is available to stream on Facebook Watch now. New episodes drop Thursdays at 3pm ET.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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